Doug Nufer on big business’s buy-out of history and the corporate biography’s elevation to an art form untroubled by irony.
The Body Sings
The Body Sings
“The histories of America’s great companies are more than mere chronicles of personal or corporate achievement.” Henry Kissinger, from the foreword of In Good Company: 125 Years at the Heinz Table 1869-1994
“More! That’s what I want - more!” Edward G. Robinson as Rocco in Key Largo, before the hurricane
Respect, popularity, love - aside from money and power, what more could anybody want? That companies arrange to be recognized for their achievements is perfectly understandable, even pitiable, given the way self-published claims tend to be dismissed. Nevertheless, with design features that emphatically support the subject and downsized texts whose jargon deflects critical thought, corporate histories can be formidable cultural artifacts. Within the closed-circuit network of corporate self-actualization, the inventor’s art, writer’s craft, and journalist’s integrity all serve the patron, hero, and primary consumer of the book written for him. Like histories commissioned by despots and the press releases that become our news, authorized corporate histories seem to be in the absurd position of begging indulgence from a position of strength. What’s more, people believe them.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12/4/95) uses a single authoritative source for an article comparing the 1995 Boeing machinists strike to a strike in 1948: Robert Serling, writer of Legend And Legacy (St. Martin’s 1992). Serling’s book is a version of history commissioned by Boeing management and given to thousands of employees; its index entry for Labor reads, “See Strikes.” A human-interest piece that balances the historian’s opinions with the recollections of two 72-year-old labor veterans may seem like a harmless substitute for news, but newspapers scrupulously pose as unbiased filters of daily life. In the context of an article purporting to illustrate the travails of striking workers, Serling seems like the soul of equanimity, as trustworthy a source as money can buy.
More recently, thanks perhaps to the popularity enjoyed by books of the genre that successfully cross over into the self-help field, commercial publishers have begun to push corporate histories as they might any legitimate non-fiction book. For its Fall 1997 line, Hyperion feaured Pour Your Heart Into It by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (“and,” as they say, Dori Jones Yang). Hyperion paid Schultz $500,000, all of which (after profits) sanctimoniously went to charity, and kicked in another $300,000 for promotion. Even smaller presses more known for avant-garde fiction than for entrepreneurial success stories see value in capitalizing on the trend. The Fall 1998 catalog of Four Walls Eight Windows lists Redhook: Beer Pioneer by Peter Krebs as one of eight new releases. (Some years back Four Walls did publish *** by Michael Brodsky, so the move to do a real corporate history after having done such an aggressively wacky virtual one makes some kind of sense.)
Schultz’s memoir aside, most contemporary examples of corporate histories in the marketplace of ideas are books written by independent journalists with the cooperation of the company. Although these may be less authorized than books written by the CEO, for hire by employees, or under company contract by freelancers, books such as I Sing The Body Electronic by Fred Moody (Viking 1995) and Just Do It by Donald Katz (Random House 1994) not only advocate the company’s position as engineered by the public relations department, but they entertain dissenting views of the subject to an extent that lets them crack the general trade book marketplace. Moody’s season with a Microsoft product development team rushed into paperback following a successful hardcover run, easily beating Fighting Chance (Sasquatch), his season with the Seattle Seahawks.
If the glamour of Microsoft can sell a book that dramatizes the thrill of computer work, Katz’s Nike is a prohibitive favorite to capitalize on the exploits of superstars. According to the Wall Street Journal (9/23/96), business books outsell books in other categories even when they aren’t flaunting someone’s great fortune. Bestsellers among business books usually explain the latest management motivation craze or advise the reader on some elegant route to success, but what does the bestseller list mean when a corporation orders 100,000 advance copies from its vanity press?
Staking out the extremes of this genre are in-house productions and adversarial exposés. In Good Company, Eleanor Foa Dienstag’s tribute to Heinz (Warner 1994), and The Colorful Du Pont Company, P.J. Wingate’s song to the Du Pont dye division (Serendipity 1982) shed their complexity once they exhaust the reader’s inclination to learn more about ketchup or paint, but their blatant boosterism doesn’t undercut their credibility. Whether we have Warhol’s celebrations of the banal, or literature’s minimalists to thank for developing an aesthetic that might consider these corporate reports as art, I don’t know; I do know that Space Jam’s transformation from TV commercial to movie shouldn’t disturb a culture that thrives on infomercials and shopping channels.
In some ways, these simple paeans to sponsorship are more charming than the exposés written by scorned ex-employees. Albert Lee in Call Me Roger (Contemporary 1988) begins an utterly convincing annihilation of the personal management style of the GM leader famous for coupling employee layoffs with manager bonuses by telling how Roger Smith personally snubbed him when he was Smith’s speechwriter. Swoosh by J.B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund (HBJ 1991) wears out its claim as Nike’s unauthorized biography by being less critical of the sneaker giant than Just Do It manages to be. Take away the feud between CEO Phil Knight and J.B.’s husband Rob, who left the company in 1986, and Swoosh is no more unauthorized than a pledge raid on the frat house.
two tales of one Nike
Author, authorized, unauthorized, authority, authoritarian: terms laid waste by postmodern discourse attain recuperation in the business world of letters. Some of the respectable journalists I name may resent being identified as authors of authorized corporate histories, but what is authorization? All manuscripts run a gauntlet of editorial and marketing specialists before acquiring the authority of publication; and from that point an author’s reputation depends on publicists, reviewers, dealers, broadcasters, book buyers, and eventually, perhaps, on tinhorn culture critics plying their opinions in journals shelved among the zines. Tainted by pulp lit, the term “unauthorized” pretends to a certain legitimacy, while books commissioned to express the company line are authorized yet lack authority: against this backdrop of expectation the Nike books stand.
In a way it comes as a relief that Katz’s Nike book outperforms Swoosh. Once other companies see the value (or, the lack of risk) in letting biographers discuss the protagonists’ shortcomings, the corporate history genre may well replace forms of nonfiction now fallen into intellectual and economic disuse. Then again, after Volkswagen paid historian Hans Mommsen $2 million to show how slave labor built “the people’s car” (Volkswagen And Its Workers During The Third Reich; no English translation in sight), no company with anything to hide ought to let an independent writer anywhere near its archives.
Not that Swoosh gets trounced; Strasser and Becklund tell “The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There” (Swoosh ‘s subtitle) with a novelistic depth and passion. The story is particularly well-detailed in relating the early years of the company, up through the time Strasser’s husband leaves. After reading of Rob Strasser’s heroics told in a breathless, war story tone (“To make Nike the number-one brand in the country, Strasser did not envision saturation bombing. He didn’t want a shotgun, he wanted a rifle aimed at the cynics, the leaders who set the pace.”), I wonder why Swoosh isn’t required reading for all Nike employees. So he went to work for Adidas - don’t superstars change teams?
Phil Knight as well as Rob Strasser and all of the early Nike faithful compose a very favorable picture of a young company on the move. Strasser (a former Nike ad exec) and Becklund (her sister, an L.A. Times reporter) show the fledgling shoe salesmen pluckily building their trade, establishing dealer loyalty with “years of simple honesty, of unquestioned acceptance of returns,” of facing down creditors, beating competitors, and suing the shit out of anyone in their way. Tender yet raunchy anecdotes rip the pants off the executives at play, in scenes that boys grown old might fondly remember. Even the hungover CEO groping through his own vomit to recover a contact lens might, years later, approve of Swoosh ‘s spirited explanation of circumstances (pesky unions, stodgy facilities) that drove Nike from US factories to Asian sweatshops.
Although most of the controversy surrounding Nike’s manufacturing and marketing practices occurred after Swoosh ‘s publication, the authors squeeze much that did happen at the end of the eighties into 20 pages of their 682-page tome, glossing over criticisms of the shoe company that Just Do It faces and explores. Katz relates a 1990 PUSH boycott of Nike in a way that explains the detractors’ position, while Strasser and Becklund seem forced to mention this or any event bearing on their topic that arises after Rob Strasser quits. The awkwardness of this sort of appendix (contained within the main body of text) comes across in Swoosh ‘s prologue, meant to capture the once-great company at a low point and, perhaps, to keep it there, stuck in a Vegas cocktail lounge in 1986: “An aging harpist in a long red polyester gown sat in the middle of the restaurant playing ‘My Way.’” Through no fault of the authors, life and Nike went on.
Just Do It, by contrast, reaches for a more grandiose effect with its opening: “Along the slender thoroughfare called West Illinois Street, a long line of television vans idled noisily with their microwave saucers thrust skyward as if to catch the October night.” The occasion is Michael Jordan’s 1993 retirement from basketball, a potential catastrophe for the sneaker company that made him their lead superstar in a marketing strategy that, in turn, made them the biggest sports broker in the cosmos. Although less than half as long as Swoosh, Just Do It has an expansive, somewhat bloated style to accommodate not just the egos of its principal figures, but the inflated importance of the media events it delightfully describes.
One advantage Katz has over his fellow corporate historians is the identification his subject enjoys with its superstars. Drive a Buick, fly Alaska Airlines in Boeing jets, slather Heinz ketchup over every meal while admiring paintings done in Du Pont acrylics, and you still might get bored reading the background of these familiar products; Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Charles Barkley offer, in the word of Rocco, more. Heroes further glorified by the Nike commercials become impossibly familiar as Katz goes behind the scenes to reveal the legendary nonconformists as they thumb their noses at the status quo while taking its checks to the bank. Although Katz sometimes buys into the hype (the so-called Dream Team exists not to soothe jingoistic egos and sell the NBA but because the downtrodden basketball countries of the world actually want the American pros to kick their butts in the Olympics), he’s good at relating the absurd spectacles with an ironic wit that, in the thorough picture he videotapes, exists unobtrusively.
Given Nike’s penchant for embracing renegade athletes and rule-breakers, Phil Knight’s “begrudging” cooperation with Katz seems sophisticated, as do his snits whenever someone mentions Strasser. Given his personal and financial stake in Nike, Knight’s extreme competitiveness also seems a perfect match for his chosen field. Sports metaphors overrun corporate histories - any secret to the success of these books may well begin and end with the affinity Business shares with Sport - so, far from trivial, Knight’s ability to elevate a personnel dispute to the level of blood feud is a genuine and realistic response to the challenges posed by his or any business. Think how routine disagreements with co-workers can escalate, especially when tinged with a lover’s sense of betrayal.
Neither Nike book really tells why Knight thinks as he does, but Just Do It puts his and his superstars’ problems into perspective. Katz relates a complicated diplomatic snarl from the ‘92 Olympics that occurs when Michael Jordan refuses to wear a Reebok sweatsuit. En route to a sure gold medal, the American basketball team serves notice from the luxury hotel suites it occupies in lieu of sharing space with common jocks, that it won’t mount the victory platform wearing the logo of a Nike rival, regardless of Reebok’s contract with the Olympics as awards ceremony outfitters. The American pros are dominated by Nike loyalists, who owe more to their shoe company than to their respective NBA teams. While the Nike brass is willing to let Reebok have its Olympic moment and finds Jordan’s stand somewhat embarrassing, Knight and his fellow execs appreciate Jordan’s commitment to them. They can’t simply call him off - his integrity as an athlete, as a man is too wrapped up in his identity as a Nike superstar. Moreover, Jordan’s stand versus the Olympics establishment is just the sort of grandstand play a Nike guy is supposed to execute, a bold, stick-it-to-the-man kind of, well; midway through this intriguing episode with all of its strategic twists and principled stands, it’s hard not to recall Mexico City in 1968, when athletes staging a demonstration at an Olympics awards ceremony set their sights on something even higher than the honor of their endorsement contracts: the disproportionate use of young black men in the front lines of Vietnam.
As good as he is at milking the absurdity of this situation, Katz also excels when he handles a less ambiguous issue: Nike’s responsibility to its factory workers. Applying the leftist bumpersticker line, “Think globally, act locally,” he explains the economic realities that force any reasonable company to use the superior modern facilities available in Asia, where cheap skilled labor gratefully lines up for miles to do the vilest job, and he explains how making sneakers might well be the vilest job, but then, after giving Nike’s excuses for being somehow unable to tell its contracted factories what a human being must have in order to live, Katz offers an opinion: “investors wouldn’t object,” if Nike pressed for higher wages.
From Asia to Newark, Niketown to the Beaverton campus, the naughty achievers push for their personal bests. When Charles Barkley begins fuguing at a shareholder’s meeting on the ramifications of “just do it,” blithely applying the slogan to Jeffrey Dahmer’s appetite for boys, who wouldn’t rather side with the powerful superstars of the world, forever to be upheld at the expense of the miserable little gooks who kill themselves making the masters’ shoes?
the confidence men
Excerpted in Sports Illustrated and blurbed by People and USA Today, Just Do It has an unquestionable crossover appeal. However much critics may resent giving our richest corporations practically exclusive access to the media, Nike and Katz deliver an entertaining package of information that taps a widespread urge. Excellence is eternal (losing unattainable) when “there is no finish line.”
Appeal is thought to be a matter of personal taste rather than systematic manipulation. Never mind that one title’s 100,000 units get nationally distributed while another’s 5,000-copy print run receives no promotion at all; the market provides the books we want. But why would anyone want to read I Sing The Body Electronic? The spectacle of young millionaires creating software programs as they get stoked on grunge music? The clash between programmer and designer? The desire to know what makes our computers go? Come on! Envy is boring, such clashes are stereotypical, and nobody even reads the manuals. The answer to this loaded question can only be Gates.
People read anything they can about Bill Gates, no matter how it overlaps what has already been written. The “vaguely boyish…aging Dennis the Menace” who inspires awe and fear in employees as they “constantly profess amazement at the depth of his technical knowledge and the breadth of his vision,” also happens to be a decent athlete whose conversation covers “an astonishing range of topics.” As in a press release, where layers of fluff conceal chunks of hard and fascinating information, Fred Moody’s fly-on-the-wall act does have its moments, although I doubt Viking relished the same scene I did so much that they deemed it alone merited the publication of this book. In an executive meeting Gates rages over the “advantage” traditional publishers have over software manufacturers (“They own titles!”) as he figures how to get the rights to material so that he can cash in on its reproduction. The answer? Circumvent publishers: deal directly with the creators. “The least greed is down at that author level. Whatever amount of money is involved, he’s going to be more reasonable than publishers.”
My distorted reading of Moody respects a tradition the Nike books observe and most corporate histories attempt: hero-worship. When your principal figures are the greatest basketball players in the world, this is a slam-dunk. When your CEO runs the biggest sports commodifier in the world, attention also tends to follow him, no matter how cryptically awkward his gestures and words. When your CEO is, well, the richest person in the world, there’s no getting around him.
The histories of most corporations span the dynasties of more than one CEO, and authorized epics typically become catalogues of bland praise. Moody’s sketches of Gates and the Katz/Strasser/Becklund triangulation of Knight show how much more fascinating these characters can be when the authors are given some license. And then there’s Albert Lee. Lee’s Roger Smith bio begins with the standard lapdog dedication, leading aficionados of the genre to expect the mink glove treatment: “This book is dedicated to the real General Motors - the people in the plants, offices, and dealerships, and the suppliers who are GM’s extended family,” followed by a Smith quote perhaps intended to showcase the man’s intellect: “There are no longer any sheltered waters, safe from the gunboats of world competition.” But then we get, “ ‘Call me Roger,’ the slight man with the squeaky voice said, extending his hand.”
Lee’s adversarial stance plus the way Call Me Roger plays off conventions of the form make this well-rounded view of a complex, extremely capable but ludicrously flawed hero noteworthy, even if revelations that appeared in 1988 must be too familiar to appeal to general readers today.
Such is not the case with Ling by Stanley Brown (Atheneum 1972), a biography of the man behind Ling, Temco, Vought. Beyond the historical relevance of this look at a prototype of the contemporary conglomerate, Ling offers an inside view of an American business legend told in the beautifully hip style of a magazine feature writer of the period. A Fortune magazine reporter who also contributed to Esquire and Life, Brown has his bio appear in the book and on the dust jacket, along with a dj photo; and he dedicates the book to “Brenda, Hannah, and Matthew,” thereby receiving and taking full recognition as author in a manner consistent with general trade books yet, for some reason, inconsistent with the common presentation of the author of a corporate history.
adversarial or friendly?
“The big Alouette helicopter swept across the arid, steep hills of south central Texas, its own shadow the only trace of men visible to its passengers,” Brown begins, as the execs of LTV head for Eagle Ranch to indulge in “a combination of work and play characteristic of modern business life.” When they land in the middle of nowhere, the CEO gives the order: “Let’s walk,” whereupon “Jim Ling walked fast from the Alouette. The heavy men with him pumped hard to keep up. The regulars were used to the pace, and mostly they loved it. After all, they were moving with the fastest mover on the American business scene.”
Semen fairly streaming from his lips, Brown anticipates Robin Leech as he revels in a lifestyle accommodated by a private hunting preserve. “A sportsman can sit in a blind or drive out in a carryall vehicle and sooner or later get a shot at such unlikely game as blackbuck antelope and axis deer from India, two kinds of big-horn sheep - the aoudad from North Africa and the mouflan from Sardinia - fallow deer and red stag from Europe, and sika deer from Japan.” Hunt locally, kill globally.
Eventually Brown gets down to business, explaining the complicated schemes that enabled Ling to juggle various holdings in defense, steel, meat packing, and sporting goods industries. The men leave the killing fields of Eagle Ranch to go back to their desks. Whatever they do, however, Brown wastes no time questioning their motives or principles. Ling is morally above reproach, thank God, and these men enjoy the run of the land unfettered by ironic asides. These defense contractors who maintain the homefront during the Vietnam War by shooting the bejeezus out of exotic fauna and by availing themselves of a snappy paramilitary terminology inspired by war in referring to their meetings and takeovers aren’t hawks, per se: they support any policy that’s best for commerce. Brown has no interest in commenting on such connections, and so winds up creating a most insightful portrait of the man and his time.
Not that Brown restrains himself from commenting on other matters. When he rages over the Justice Department’s tendency to move against conglomerates, it’s enough to make a noncorporate reader nostalgic for a period when Government appeared to be concerned about antitrust law. Ling’s spectacular rise and fall, however, reads better as hero’s story than victim’s tale; Brown wisely underplays the impact of external forces beyond Ling’s control.
So great a presence is Ling in Ling, he even achieves a status virtually unknown in corporate histories, thanks to a device linked with the demise of Richard Nixon: he narrates a huge section of the book, on tape. Citing a tendency the great man has toward bizarre syntax that makes much of what he says unintelligible (“touching the peaks” or leaping from idea to idea), Brown commits the unpardonable sin of editing the tapes; nevertheless, this bold foray obliterates anything accomplished before or since in the genre and sends the giddy reader plunging into territory of self-explanation best exploited by dictators arguing their cases of population management in the court of Posterity (“I was forced to kill the Indians and torture the priests: the country was going to hell!”).
The occasion for such close personal scrutiny is the Justice Department antitrust suit against LTV after LTV buys J amp; L Steel. Ling spends much of his tape time explaining his actions and strategy and reacting to critics. On the press: “I’m not used to reading the Post and I was shocked by the tone of their editorial, a real pile of crap mostly.” On Nixon: “He is running wild again and not acting like a proper chief executive.” On Prudential overbidding for his Computer Technology: “Sell a goddamn glorified bookkeeping department for $150 million.” On joining a golf course: “It’s a great course, though I need another country club like a hole in the head.”
Moreover, he claims to have outdriven Arnold Palmer with a 360-yard tee shot, asexually refers to men as “attractive,” and counts among his pet peeves people who chew gum, snap Fritos, or get drunk on airplanes. Where does it all end? More or less at the beginning, the Eagle Ranch kapowwow, a temporary divestiture, and an eventual - via epilogue - return to some prominence.
the spin also lies
Credibility and appeal need not be of concern in the genuine authorized corporate history, with its readymade readership. One Hundred Fifty Years Of History Along The Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad by employee William E. Griffin Jr. (the company 1984) is an oversize paperback report of a company whose name seems longer than the 30-mile strip of track it operates. By the mid-eighties, operations are most lucratively confined to real estate development, but that doesn’t sidetrack this gorgeously packaged valentine to railroad buffs and stockholders from hyping a modest past.
The Alaska Airlines Story by Archie Satterfield (Alaska Northwest 1981) ploys this strategy far more effectively, partly because Satterfield has a lot more material at his disposal. Like Nike, Alaska Airlines seems to thrive on giving its chronicler free rein, so more than 80% of this corporate history consists of colorful anecdotes. Bush pilots fly blind and/or blind drunk through horrendous weather! Managers salvage airplanes from scrap heaps, dodge creditors, and keep ‘em flying! Satterfield balances the heroics with a self-effacing tone that takes delight in exposing raunchy shenanigans of yesteryear, which are comfortably removed from the drab, efficient current management. While the Boeing and RFamp;P stories rely overmuch on the reader’s innate curiosity about airplanes and trains, and the Heinz and Du Pont stories fail to enliven condiments and dye, Alaska’s history packs in so much ripsnorting activity that boardroom analysis would be boring.
The merger between corporate style and good storytelling can be so awkward as to produce literature with the appeal of an industrial training film, a Jack Webb political documentary, or teenager-aimed propaganda devised to keep kids off sex and drugs. Some of these books may be redeemed only by a critical stance that refuses to accept them at face value, but so what? Where would Joyce be without the study guides to Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
“Nineteen ninety four is a significant year in the life of the H. J. Heinz Company,” Eleanor Foa Dienstag begins the introduction of In Good Company and, “For the H. J. Heinz Company, 1991 turned out to be a uniquely difficult year,” starts chapter one (or, 1). Jargon worthy of William Gaddis puts the tropes on parade, reviewing the good deeds of great men: “Heinz has always prided itself on its decentralized management structure and continues to nurture initiative and accountability.” Keys to the jargon include creative transitive verbs (one exec is adept at “surfacing new people and ideas”; also, “benchmarking”), a glut of passive voice (“turf wars have been kept to minimum, strong bonds of loyalty forged, and fortunes made”), dangling phrases (“Never a desk man…the only action of which he seemed capable was sitting still.”), self-serving capitalization (“the Founder” and all of his “Important Ideas”), adept cliché (“truer words were never written”), unintentional humor (“Twice a week he lunched with his board, grilling them on details of his business.”), arcane abbreviation (“TQM” for “total quality management”), stop-action attribution “In Italy, where babies are worshiped [sic], according to Claudio Serafini, Plada’s chief operating officer, baby food is treated with the kind of care Americans reserve for prescription drugs.”), and fantasy (the Persian Gulf War, “during which few people strayed from their television sets,” according to the author, “totally destroyed the major diet season,” according to the president of Weight Watchers).
Any food company that boasts of the English’s fondness for its goods and promotes the full-of-beans chic with the glee of a schoolboy cutting farts in class deserves much more praise than I can give. As introduced by Henry Kissinger and presented by Eleanor Foa Dienstag, Heinz indeed is a good company, as is - for that matter - The Colorful Du Pont Company presented by employee P. J. Wingate.
Wingate’s earnest report contains an anecdote which brings the corporate history phenomenon to a fitting conclusion. Not that it says why these books should be accepted as authoritative sources or how some lackluster volumes become commercial successes - more that it shows what anyone who has most of everything must desire.
Some Du Pont chemists are having lunch under “The Island Funeral,” a painting by illustrator N. C. Wyeth. “It is impossible to say where science ends and art begins,” says Dr. Herbert Lubs, assistant director of research, who begins an art history lecture in which he traces the pigments now available from the Du Pont laboratories, and muses over what Titian and Rembrandt might have done with “Monastral” blues and greens. “This masterpiece from the hand of one of the greatest of all American artists could not have been painted a few years ago,” he says, revealing that he personally gave N. C. the paints to do the job, whereupon someone suggests that the chemist should have signed the painting, Wyeth and Lubs, or Lubs and Wyeth.
Without a trace of irony, Lubs agrees.
*additional corporate histories discussed in this essay
Call Me Roger, Albert Lee (Contemporary 1988) In Good Company, Eleanor Foa Dienstag (Warner 1994) Legend And Legacy, Robert J. Serling (St. Martin’s 1992) The Alaska Airlines Story, Archie Satterfield (Alaska Northwest 1981) Just Do It, Donald Katz (Random House 1994) Swoosh, J.B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund (HBJ 1991) The Colorful Du Pont Company, P. J. Wingate (Serendipity 1982) Ling, Stanley Brown (Atheneum 1972) One Hundred Fifty Years Of History Along The Richmond, Fredericksburg And Potomac Railroad, William E. Griffin (RFamp;P 1984) Pour Your Heart Into It, Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang (Hyperion 1997)